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Far from Washington, the routine symbiosis of the border plays out in Texas and Mexico

People who tried to cross into the United States on the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge in Hidalgo, Texas, Dec. 22, 2018. The comfortable symbiosis between the two countries played out regardless of the deadlock in Washington that threatened to keep the government shut down into the new year

[HIDALGO, Texas] A man crossing the bridge from Reynosa, Mexico, to Texas lugged a merry toddler-size Santa Claus piñata that he had bought for US$10. Maritza Delgado monitored her small children hanging upside down on a tree next to the sidewalk as they waited to cross back to Texas. Rene Saenz crossing toward Mexico carried Target bags full of diapers purchased at Sam's Club to deliver to his family in Mexico.

Except for that business about the government shutting down because of places just like this, it was a pretty normal weekend at the quarter-mile bridge separating Mexico and Texas. There were long lines Saturday, and people waited patiently for hours in the strong South Texas sun. For no apparent reason, there was hardly a wait at all Sunday, to the delight of crossers who just wanted to spend time with family for Christmas.

What did it mean? What explained the difference in traffic on the same weekend? No one really knew, just as almost no one understood the machinations that led to the partial government shutdown. Instead, the comfortable symbiosis between the two countries played out regardless of the deadlock in Washington that threatened to keep the government shut down into the new year.

Most people on the international bridge in Hidalgo this weekend said they did not know about the shutdown or that the customs officers who checked their documents were working without pay.

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They also said they were unaware of the funding fight to build a border wall not far from the bridge. A wall already exists in South Texas, part of it beside this bridge. There are steel beams on top of a concrete flood levee that stretches for 20 miles in Hidalgo County. Customs and Border Protection has notified landowners nearby that President Donald Trump's new wall will be built in most of Hidalgo County in addition to the structures that already exist.

But most crossers this weekend were not thinking about a wall. They were headed for holiday time with family.

"I'm just going home," said Esau Garcia, who had spent the last few days with his parents in Reynosa. Garcia, unaware of the shutdown, lives in South Texas, but crosses monthly for family time. He would return to Reynosa on Christmas Eve to celebrate with his parents.

"I'll come back tonight," Saenz, the man carrying the diapers, said as he walked without having to stop and wait, as he normally does this time of year.

Customs officers and border guards may not be so fortunate to spend the holidays with their families, so long as the government is not open. Previously approved time off is canceled during the shutdown, according to Art Del Cueto, a Border Patrol agent in Arizona and vice president of the agency's labor union.

"If you have family over, too bad," Del Cueto said in an interview. "It's a bigger deal than people realize."

One Border Patrol agent working free Saturday escorted a big bus onto the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge to deport immigrants. Many migrants who illegally cross the Rio Grande seek asylum in immigration court.

Before the shutdown, Trump issued an executive order Tuesday that closed the nation's immigration courts on Dec. 24, and offices of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services as a holiday before Christmas. Both federal agencies said that appointments — and naturalization ceremonies — would be rescheduled.

Because the Citizenship and Immigration Services agency is funded by the fees that immigrants pay, and not by congressional funding, it is scheduled to reopen on Dec. 26. But immigration courts, at least, will be closed during the length of the shutdown.

To some immigration rights advocates, this was a profound paradox: shutting down the government, which operates a backlogged but effective system to deport people, over an untested physical barrier at the border.

"If you juxtapose those two facts, one that you're closing down the government to create a wall that won't really do much to help deal with immigration concerns, and the same time, you're closing down the immigration courts so that people who are alleged to be deportable can't be deported — well, that just doesn't make sense," said Allan Wernick, director of CUNY Citizenship Now, an immigration law clinic operated out of the City University of New York.

The deported immigrants at the bridge Saturday stepped off the bus, were freed from U.S. custody, walked to the other side of the bridge and blended into the line of bridge crossers heading south. This deportation process plays out often. But Jim Darling, mayor of the neighboring South Texas city of McAllen, does not love the attention focused on the region's immigration issues.

"People talk about a crisis on the border, but there's no crisis here," said Darling, whose city operates the bridge in conjunction with federal authorities. "It's in Central America. But until the federal government figures out its immigration policy, people are going to keep talking about a crisis on the border. But most people really have no clue about what goes on here."

Darling was also unhappy that the government was shut down over border wall funding. He said Customs and Border Protection officials said their operations were business as usual, besides the administrative people not working.

"So I don't know how they can actually be running at full operation if everyone isn't coming to work," Darling said. "But if this is anything like the administration's done — like the family separations — no one's thought about it."

Customs and Border Protection officers this weekend joked and groaned at being on the clock but not being paid.

"Here all day," one officer said Saturday, smiling and shaking his head.

Meanwhile, officers continued their daily duties Sunday. Talk about the shutdown dominated conversations within the agency, but not for bridge crossers like Garcia.

"What's that?" he said.